As the foray departed the next day for the final day’s push to Crow Castle, Edric reflected with quiet satisfaction on the preparations he had seen to so far. The donkeys trotting along under Zekias and Hod’s supervision were packed with all the necessaries for breaking through defended gates, and enduring a long fight. Secrecy had been tight. Even Zekias had not seen through Bo’s disguise and had been stunned to learn of his true identity.
On the other hand, Edric thought, if the evil Master in Roaring Pass is scrying me, Dispels might do little save confuse the picture. But we can but try!
Then Bardic, riding at the van, reported that the pleasant campsite at the foot of the Gates was occupied.
It seemed odd: there was plenty of daylight for the last hour or two needed to reach real shelter in Crow. The travelers shook out into fighting order and approached cautiously.
There were two distinct groups. The majority, who seemed to be making a rather soggy and reluctant camp, were traders of the lesser type, traveling in numbers rather than with hired guards. They fell back as far as the site would allow as the heavily armed and armored newcomers swung off their horses. At the other, southern end of the campsite, next to a large boulder that had not been there before, two other people spared them hardly a glance. One was a city-dressed, youngish man, whose blonde hair was cut in the fashionable craze of the moment, leaving the top long and swept back and the sides shaved. His horse, a fine riding mare with good harness, was tethered nearby. His companion was clearly a practical man of his hands, permanently dusty from exposure to stone mining. He was listening deferentially as the younger man explained something to do with the large boulder, which Edric could see was carven on one face with deep-incised lettering.
Edric eased over, to where he could decipher the carvings. The message was lettered in both Nemedian and Aquilonian.
THIS MONUMENT IS SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF VIVO, HERO AND LORD.
HIS LIFE WAS LONG. HE FOUGHT BRAVELY IN THE SERVICE OF THE MANY.
HE DIED HEROICALLY TO SAVE THE MANY FROM EVIL.
Edric could not suppress a snort.
“Did you want something?”
“Er, what’s this then?”
“This is the plinth of a great work, commemorating the hero Vivo. My name is Tagorian – you’ve heard of me…? Well, I will be creating a bronze of the hero, to be placed here.”
“So, is it going to be of a big beardy guy clutching his throat and choking?”
“What? Why would it be? My commission” – here, he unrolled a sturdy piece of parchment – “is for a colossus, a mighty serpent coiled about, the hero’s arm raised bearing a mighty brand.”
“Have you spoken to anyone up in the castle? They and some of us here are the few who saw how Vivo actually died.”
“I don’t need to know how someone died to commemorate their life! You priests! So literal!”
“Who commissioned this work?” Bardic wanted to know.
“Lord Pras Rooduir, the wealthy ruler of this region. Now excuse me.”
Meanwhile Celo, perhaps because he looked least likely to cut someone’s throat, was nervously approached by a young trader. The man explained that he, his wife and three younguns were desperate to try to get through the pass but armed me were blocking the road to the castle: perhaps they could tag along behind the party? The trader, Ormley, could tell them little about the armed men, only that they had bows.
After putting it to the others, Celo returned and turned the man down. “We attract danger,” he explained kindly.
Kuruk trotted back from where he had been up ahead, scouting. “Eight! Longbowmen! Their bows – not so good, this weather!”
With due caution – and having sent Celo and Morath slinking off ahead so that they could strike the archers at close quarters unexpectedly – the travelers approached. But it seemed these were not bandits: they were in fact some of Crow’s archers.
“Yes, we are stopping people from coming further up,” the spokesman of the archers explained. “There was an all-out attack on the castle – a lot of men killed. The Gates are still crawling with enemies. Mercenaries, sure, and some Hack Brothers too – we guess they meant to take the castle.
“You’ll be all right to go through – but fly some kind of banner to show you’re not an enemy!”
His gray cassock flapping miserably from his Quarterstaff, Edric led the party into the outer ward of Castle Crow. Its namesakes, the crows, wheeled in the sky or settled to wait for more carrion. Bodies were still being carted out: some were damson-garbed.
“They breached the outer gate,” Black Hudig grunted laconically. “Used some type of fire. Then they threw more fire.”
Edric examined the gateway. There were a few substances, known mainly in Koth, that could cause an explosion powerful enough to breach a castle gate. He crossed the ward and stooped, searching the ground around the inner gate. He picked up one or two shards of pottery, but lacked the alchemical skill to say whether that could have contained Kothic Fire.
The Master’s intent guessed
Sir Anled of High Dome, the castellan, filled in a few more blanks over a light supper.
“Our suspicion is that the attack was aimed at seizing our girls, or perhaps Lady Gerda. We fear traders and pilgrims have been going missing, crossing through Roaring Pass. Sacrifices.”
“Consider, Edric,” Sagitus the Reeve-chaplain urged, leaning forward, “the Master has ever been seeking summoning agents – crystals and what have you. You cannot miss the connection: he wants to bring forth some major demon into this world.”
Later, Edric consulted Werhema privately. The seeress and common-law wife to Sagitus seemed to have aged three years since last they met. He filled in part of the journey through Cimmeria, so that she should know that her vision of the Blood Moon had served them well. Then he asked if she had further advice.
“I’m afraid I have little to tell you, Edric: I cannot see the Master. I saw enough – just – to warn of the attack. I know you will do your best to restore justice. And I am resigned that blood may need to be shed.”
“Oh blood will be shed, Mistress Werhema! Have you seen the men I’ve brought with me?”
Werhema smiled, but seemed to take this in the professional sense.
“I can see all of them, except the big man you call Forgrim. That one is different.”
“His faith is to some warrior-spirit, I believe. So quaint! But speaking of being able to see, do you have anything that could protect me against scrying?”
Werhema crossed to a small coffer, lifted out a charm, and presented it to the Friar.
“This is an amulet. It wards against scrying.”
Amazed at such an easy advantage, Edric donned it and thanked her.
Bardic sought out Black Hudig and asked if they could be directed or guided to Garamaine, hermit-ranger of the region. Hudig explained that the famed ranger lived up on the slopes of Mount Golamira, off to the south-west, and had a particular payment: one ewe lamb and one kid, pure-bred.
“We have a few here, so we can pay him,” he added, then, exhausted by his long-winded conversation, returned to his duties.
Sir Anled granted them the lamb and kid, and asked that they bring food to holy Percali, the hermit-priest that dwelled near the foot of Roaring Pass.
Plans were laid. Brother Keth volunteered to bring the lamb and kid to Garamaine, needing only Morath to guide him to the best approach to the mountain from here. Both Friars were in agreement that no mundane foot should tread on sacred soil! As for himself, Edric prepared a divination for the morning, laying out expensive incense and meditating on Mitra’s word.
The next morn, following his devotions, Edric asked for any insight to success with endeavors to reach the hermit through what was, obviously, enemy-filled land.
“Stout steel wards east west and south: soon shall feed the hermit’s mouth.”
Edric brought this oracular word back to his companions and they mulled it over. The consensus was that there were enemies waiting east – in the hills beside the pass – south – on the road leading to Castle Sleepnot and Aquilonia – and west – obviously, up the Roaring Pass trail itself. But they could win through and feed the hermit.
Given this, they decided to make a dedicated expedition just to breach these “steel wards” and leave Zekias and the donkeys behind. Edric decided that the time had come to put Yemmi’s employment on a regular basis.
“Naw, naw, yer took me on as a cracksman – my job starts once yer get ter th’ doors yer want opened, right?” Yemmi demurred.
“Let’s say I pay you a good wage – seven silvers a day – and you agree to mind the horses and fight if need be.”
“Oh, now yer talking squire! And so lessee – that’s 35 you owe now as of now! And if I’m part of th’ team, then it’s shares too, right? One twelfth!”
Morah and Celo, scouting ahead by a good sixty yards, reported they had seen tracks heading east. Gollarn rode forward. His keen wilderness-bred eyes took in everything.
“Sixteen riders, armed men by the weight. They turned off the trail here, making east,” he agreed.
Bardic looked up through the drifts of cloud and drizzle to where hills could be glimpsed, now and then.
“Let’s not follow them. Our simplest course is to press west, deal with the enemies there, and feed the hermit.
“There’s a chance they’ll be eaten by giant apes, if they don’t die of the cold,” he added cheerfully, guiding his gelding round with a knee and returning to the trail.
Within the hour, Morath and Celo found the western fork to Roaring Pass. And more: they glimpsed a figure through the misting rain, rising and hurrying back west. As they turned to report, a horn sounded in a series of notes, its cadence obviously a message.
Ensuring his front rank – Bardic, Gollarn and Kayan – were protected by Mitra’s mantle of defense, Edric arranged himself not far behind, with Morath and Celo already sneaking forward through the rough boulders and occasional scrub-bush. Forgrim and Hod flanked Edric, with Keth carrying the livestock and Yemmi and Kuruk in the rear. Dismounted now – save for Kuruk – they walked forward.
Two heavy crossbow bolts thumped into the earth by them, disappearing into the solid ground.
“Let’s pick up the pace,” Bardic snarled. Kayan, wearing very little in the way or armor, easily matched his gait, but Forgrim, heavily armored and weighed down with several weapons, lagged. Perforce, Edric and Hod also lagged, as they were using the giant mute as a human shield.
Two more bolts were sent down, no more accurately than the first pair. The attackers could guess that the arbalestiers were using loaders: they had seen the system in practice at Castle Amuran. Even now, they could not even see where the bolts were coming from! It would be up to the murderers to deal with the missile men.
Separated by a dozen yards and tucked well behind cover, the arbalestiers could not imagine that anyone could surprise them or their loaders, working behind each to wind the spare arbalest, load it and swap it with the emptied one. Suddenly, each was felled by a figure that seemingly materialized out of the very stones. The loaders screamed in alarm, scrabbling out their short-swords and trying to fall back form these devils.
“That’s got them! Now let’s press on!” Bardic called. Staring up with visor raised, he glimpsed three armored defenders off upslope and half-left. Calling the yards and direction, he waved his sword aloft, slammed his visor down, and began scrambling up as fast as his heavily-armored form allowed!
Beside him, his cousin Gollarn, also double-armored in mail short and scale corselet, was slowed in like manner by the rough slope and the unfamiliar weight. Behind them, Edric moved out in front of Forgrim and ran up the slope. Kayan Haduk danced ahead of them, leaping lightly from rock to rock.
“I am the greatest duelist in the land! Defend yourself!” he cried, concentrating on the right-hand man of the three. He evaded the defenders’ sword-thrusts easily and his keen Zingaran longsword bit home. The defenders were heavily armored – for mercenaries – but Kayan’s Zingaran style relied on finding gaps in their defenses, and he had no doubt of his eventual success.
Gollarn charged home, cutting a deep wound. Finally Bardic arrived, his great blade cleaving deep.
With the front rank engaged, and both flankers busy, the main attack of the ambush was launched: a wave of heavily armed men poured in, aiming at Keth and the reaguard!
“Oh, yikes!” Yemmi screamed, “Front-rank Yemmi, I don’t think! Shoulda lissened ter me mum – she told me never ‘ave nuffink ter do wiv priests!”